It was 10 years ago that I first entered London’s British Library as a visiting scholar from India. Little did I know then that a public institution could cast a spell on one’s senses and imagination, so much so that I keep going back there, as one revisits a pilgrimage site, whenever I find myself in the city.
Created on July 1, 1973, as the “national library” of the UK under the British Library Act 1972, the BL (as it is popularly abbreviated) celebrates 50 years in 2023 as one of the largest libraries in the world. Over half a century, its inspiring precincts have witnessed millions of people engaging with its extraordinary resources, leading to countless creative endeavours in the best spirit of individual and collective learning.
The BL had glowed with a near-mythical aura much before I first knocked on its doors. Numbers had a big role to play in this: I learnt that the library housed more than 170 million items along with a vast digital archive. I was thrilled to discover that in popular parlance, its collections were measured in kilometres: at its foundation, for instance, the library inherited 193 km of books, manuscripts, and other collections from the British Museum. Becoming the BL’s regular reader and visitor thus meant submitting oneself to the limitlessness of knowledge and also to its inherent unknowability.
Apart from the statistics, the building’s elegant architecture and the hundreds of people working there were equally instrumental in crystallising my love for the place. Designed by Colin Alexander St John Wilson and MJ Long in a style that mixes a modernist sensibility with Scandinavian aesthetics, the irregular red facade of the library complements the Victorian exteriors of the adjacent 19th century St Pancras Hotel. The massive courtyard and the grand skylit entrance hall shimmering with a glass shaft of ancient, gilded books blow away each and every reader, irrespective of the number of times they visit the place. The same can be said of its several reading rooms, teeming with large, emerald-green tables, each fitted with two plugs and a lamp.
Care and attention
But as in every institution of its kind, the heart of the BL resides in its excellent staff, including the spirited librarians and the people at the registration and information desks, who are ever ready to help both in person and via email correspondence. I have had innumerable experiences that attest to their care and attention, which also involve acting swiftly upon special requests (like photographing the normally prohibited material) on a regular basis. The BL was the first library where I discovered that one did not physically go in search of books but ordered them online, and that within a matter of the prescribed “70 minutes” (in very rare cases, a day or two), the requested items would be available for collection from the librarians’ counter.
This made me realise how efficiently the library combines the best of digital and manual expertise, which is required to effectively manage the millions of items it hosts. These items range from books, journals, manuscripts, maps, patents and stamps to photographs, music and sound collections. For scholars working on the history of the Indian subcontinent, the BL is nothing short of heaven, as it impeccably preserves the “India Office Records” and “Private Papers” relating to the East India Company and the British empire in India (famed as the “BL’s most extensive archives”). With everything meticulously catalogued, one can spend years ploughing through this wealth and barely scratch the surface.
What ensures the “public” nature of the BL is its free-for-all reading ethos. Without shelling out a penny, you can have your library card issued in a matter of minutes simply by producing an address and signature proof. No recommendation from anyone is required. Coming from a country where I have often had to supply reams of documents for the slightest access to such organisations, I find the smoothness of functioning here near-surreal. The library’s generous permission to photograph all kinds of reading material (unless otherwise stated) sans any upper limit also helps save a lot of time, especially for scholars and international visitors working on a tight schedule.
The BL’s social appeal multiplies through its gallery spaces, restaurants, bookshops, souvenir displays, and the multifaceted discussions organised year round. So often have I found myself drifting to its free and ever-popular Sir John Ritblat Gallery, where some of the world’s most significant books and related objects are permanently displayed. From the handwritten manuscripts of Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and the Brönte sisters to Shakespeare’s First Folio and Jane Austen’s writing desk, the gallery is a haven for any literature enthusiast.
Many manuscripts from other parts of the world (like those from ancient and pre-modern India written in Pali and Sanskrit) line its alluringly curated cases. At any given time, an exhibition or two run simultaneously in the BL’s ticketed spaces, even as the main entrance hall gets converted into an arena for mini displays.
With its overall collection going back 3,000 years, the institution magnificently performs its legal duty as a National Deposit Library: it has a copy of every book, newspaper, and magazine ever published in the UK.
However, the best thing about the BL is its ability to draw scholars and common readers together in one place, making it at once a public property and a global institution.
Siddharth Pandey belongs to Shimla and is the author of Fossil.
- Created on July 1, 1973, as the “national library” of the UK under the British Library Act 1972, the British Library or BL celebrates 50 years in 2023 as one of the largest libraries in the world.
- In popular parlance, its collections were measured in kilometres: at its foundation, for instance, the library inherited 193 km of books, manuscripts, and other collections from the British Museum.
- The heart of the BL resides in its excellent staff, including the spirited librarians and the people at the registration and information desks, who are ever ready to help both in person and via email correspondence.
- For scholars working on the history of the Indian subcontinent, the BL is nothing short of heaven.
- What ensures the “public” nature of the BL is its free-for-all reading ethos.